Covid-19 has been killing thousands of people worldwide, and humanity desperately needs a vaccine. Darin Edwards ’97 ’10MS ’11 Ph.D He recalled the urgency he felt when he led the charge to create Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine: “We have to make this technology do what it can do. And now we must.
Edwards, a three-time UCF graduate, is Moderna’s director of immunology. On Friday, he was the featured speaker at the College of Medicine’s third Dr. John C. and Martha Heath Grand Round.
Grand Rounds is a tradition in medical schools where scientists and physicians come together to teach and learn from each other with the goal of advancing excellence in patient care. The Hit Grand Round, named in honor of UCF’s former president and first lady, is from a gift from the Edith Bush Charitable Foundation. Edith Bush President and CEO David Odahowski credited Edwards with the scientific breakthrough that made the Grand Round possible in person this year.
“It’s a full house, thank you,” Odahousk said. “They’ve brought ‘Ayalun’ back to the Grand Rounds.
In his presentation, Edwards talked about the scientific steps he and his small team took to create the vaccine. He says earlier discoveries about messenger RNA – or mRNA – are the reason scientists can create a Covid-19 vaccine in 11 months. While most vaccines contain weakened or dead bacteria or viruses, mRNA vaccines use a different vehicle. They don’t have pathogens so they can’t get sick. Instead, mRNA acts as a messenger that signals the immune system to make a specific protein to prevent or treat a disease.
While Covid-19 brought public awareness to mRNA, scientists had actually been working on the technology for decades, Edwards explained. When the complete genetic makeup of the COVID-19 virus was published, “we had everything we needed,” Edwards said. “I spent four years understanding MRNA. We knew the approach we were taking.
He described how members of the team worked for 12 to 16 hours in a laboratory covered in protective equipment to develop and test the vaccine. Every day, he calls from his home office to international infectious disease experts and physicians and scientists with organizations such as the National Institutes of Health. Moderna’s team had to create a vaccine that was safe and potent in a way that was effective and mass-produced.
“You can make something, but if you can’t produce it consistently, it’s not likely to be medically effective,” he said.
The mRNA vaccine effectively induced the body’s immune system to produce antibodies to Covid-19, which were then cleared from the human system within 72 hours.
According to the CDC, the United States has had nearly 100 million cases of Covid-19, resulting in more than 1 million deaths. As a UCF undergraduate and graduate student in the College of Medicine, Edwards said he could not have predicted his role in developing a vaccine for a global pandemic. But he said UCF taught him how to think, ask scientific questions and solve problems. He also gave him the opportunity of higher education. Hitt noted that when he became UCF’s president, he received full undergraduate scholarships and outreach to outstanding high school students. Edwards said he wouldn’t have been able to afford college without the scholarship.
He urged students not to be discouraged by the problems they face in their studies. “Persistence can’t just be about gritting your teeth and walking away,” he said. “Find your passion.”
As is a Grand Rounds tradition, Deborah German, vice president for health affairs and dean of the College of Medicine, presented the Edward Hitt Memorial Medal.
“It solved one of the most dangerous problems in the world,” she says. “He helped save our world from a global pandemic.”
In a dramatic twist, UCF President Alexander N. Cartwright closed the event by presenting Edwards with another award. During last week’s Homecoming festivities, UCF alumni hosted the annual Shining Knights alumni event. Dr. Edwards received the Michelle Akers Award, which recognizes UCF alumni or students who have brought international recognition to UCF. As he was unable to attend that event, he received the award in person at the medical college stage.
“You have committed your work to improving global health and helping others through the innovative research and development of next-generation vaccine technology,” said Cartwright. We are proud to honor Darin Edwards, Class of 1997, 2010 and 2011.